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Globetrotting diplomats rack up €235m expenses

The country may have been going down the drain since 2007, but for those representing Ireland on the world stage the good times have continued to roll. They are the ones selling Ireland across the globe, but it seems our ambassadors and diplomatic staff are just as adept as their political masters when it comes to expenses.

Figures released to the Sunday Independent show that expenses for diplomats and their families cost over €235m since 2007 -- for entertainment, renovations to their plush pads, business-class travel and even school fees for their children.

Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin was "too busy" this weekend to offer a defence to this newspaper over the expenses enjoyed by our diplomats across the globe.

Fine Gael's deputy finance spokesman Brian Hayes, however, said such "lavish expenses" were no longer tolerable and a total overhaul of the system was needed.

We have discovered that, since January 2007, on top of their generous salaries, the taxpayer paid for:

  • €2m plus in private school fees for children of diplomatic staff.
  • Business class travel for ambassadors and their families.
  • Six-figure entertainment allowances.
  • Chauffeur-driven limos.
  • Generous additional living allowances of about €8.5m a year in 34 so-called hardship posts including Singapore, Warsaw, Vilnius, Ankara, Riga and Sofia.
  • Lavish parties.
  • Massive renovations of residences and embassy buildings into "palaces".
  • Huge rent allowances totalling over €10m for those not afforded a residence.

According to figures obtained by this newspaper, the total cost of maintaining our embassies and consular offices was €61.6m in 2007, €62.1m in 2008 and €57.3m in 2009, while early estimates have the 2010 figure at €55m.

Staff assigned to so-called hardship posts benefit greatly from additional top-up allowances, many of which are tax-free, allowing many diplomats to double their six-figure salaries.

"The problem with the hardship posts is that that list was drawn up in the early 1900s and today it is preposterous that places in Europe are still considered as hardship postings," one retired diplomat said this weekend.

The taxpayer, meanwhile, has funded more than €2m in private school fees for diplomats in the past three years.

School fees for staff in New York were the most costly, with tuition for three children in 2009 costing €113,000 -- or €37,666 per child.

Comparable arrangements were also in place at embassies in Washington DC, Berlin, Brussels, London, Madrid and Rome, with fees of between €9,000 and €12,000 per child annually.

Ambassadors have also not been shy in enjoying hectic social lives at the expense of the taxpayer.

Documents received show that the head of the consular office in New York in 2007 and 2008 had an allowance of €121,000 a year, purely for entertaining.

That has been reduced to €75,000 since.

The allowance for the Washington DC office is about €68,000, while the London office is allowed costs €60,000 a year for wining and dining.

Enormous sums of taxpayers' money were also spent on the so-called "foreign service allowance", which is paid on top of diplomatic salaries.

According to figures for 2008 and 2009, €8.4m was paid to around 150 senior diplomats as part of this allowance each year.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said: "The purpose of the foreign service allowance is to compensate for any additional costs arising from serving overseas and for variations in the cost of living.

"Officers of the Irish civil service going abroad have to be satisfied that they will be no worse off than they are at home."

Credit card bills from embassies in Chicago, Brussels, London, New York and Paris reveal an extraordinary array of €2,000 dinners at posh restaurants in New Orleans; €2,000 tickets for NBA basketball games; €10,000 spent on home furnishings in Paris in 2009; €1,290 spent on a service at BMW in Battersea, London; and a €6,000 furniture-buying bill in New York in 2007.

Details released by the Department of Foreign Affairs also show that more than €10m was spent on rented accommodation for diplomats during the past three years.

While some salary reductions have been imposed as part of public sector pay cuts, official figures and well-placed sources confirmed that many of the top-up allowances were left untouched.

According to the rules, business-class travel is permitted on long-haul flights, while the taxpayer also pays for business-class travel for the family of an ambassador on their way to a new posting.

"Travel by air is booked in economy class, except for certain posts involving long-haul flights, where business class travel may be allowable for flights taken for business purposes. As an exception, ambassadors designate and accompanying family members may use business-class travel when first travelling to take up duty in their country of primary accreditation," a department spokeswoman said.

The opposition have said that sacred cows such as the diplomatic corps cannot escape the pain being felt by the rest of the country.

According to Mr Hayes: "Ireland, now more than ever, needs a fit for purpose diplomatic corps but this sort of lavish regime is totally unjustifiable. A total root-and-branch reform of the system is now required, including a radical scaling back of outdated expenditure."

In addition to the bumper expenses, almost €20m of taxpayers' money was lavished on extravagant refurbishments of ambassadors' residences across the globe in the past three years.

More than €4.4m was spent revamping the ambassador to Canada's residence in Ottawa, while a total of €7m was spent on restoring the ambassador to the Netherlands' house in the Hague, and converting another property in the Dutch capital into an embassy building.

The Ottawa residence was converted into a state-of-the-art 24,000 sq ft "palace". Located in the affluent area of Rockcliffe, the makeover to ambassador Declan Kelly's plush pad took 15 months.

It is more than twice the size of Canadian prime minister's official residence.

Several other houses and apartments have been refurbished at huge cost in recent years, including a refit of the New York apartment of the Irish ambassador to the United Nations.

Some €829,000 was used to revamp the property on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Regarding the €7m revamp of the ambassadorial compound in the Hague, the departmental spokesman said: "The costs relate to both the conversion of a new building, formerly a house, into offices, and the refurbishment of the ambassador's residence.

"The building that houses the new offices had to be totally gutted and rebuilt, including the addition of a new annex that will serve as a passport and consular area."

The department has also spent €1.4m refurbishing Villa Spada, the embassy to the Holy See in Rome, over the past five years.

Villa Spada, which dates from the 1630s and operates as both the embassy to the Vatican and the ambassador's residence, was recently valued at €25m.

Sunday Independent